Review: Lizzie (2018) Offers a Bold Take on a Well-Known Story

Everyone already knows the story of Lizzie Borden, a 19th Century woman from a well-to-do New England family who was accused and then acquitted of murdering her father and step-mother. Borden has become a myth in pop culture, her story recounted through music, novels, and even the TV show “Supernatural.” The horror streaming service Shudder recently debuted a fresh take on the story, obtaining exclusive rights to the film Lizzie, which manages to humanize Borden in the face of her puritanical father.

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Chloë Sevigny as Lizzie Borden and Kristen Stewart as  Bridget Sullivan

Directed by Craig William Macneill, Lizzie stars Chloë Sevigny as Borden and Kristen Stewart as the Irish maid Bridget Sullivan. Because Borden was acquitted and the murders are still technically unsolved, the film is able to offer a unique take on a rehashed story. At the core of the narrative is a relationship between Borden and Sullivan, who can’t deny their attraction for each other. Sevigny and Stewart’s chemistry is the film’s real strength, especially when they first come in contact with each other, either hiding in each other’s bedrooms, away from the gaze of the tyrannical patriarch Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan), or brushing against each other in the upstairs hallway. The sexual tension builds as the film progresses, until they finally kiss, but not without consequences, as Andrew catches them and later calls his daughter an abomination.

The film’s main flaw is that the relationship between Borden and Sullivan is not given sufficient room to breathe and develop, despite the nearly two-hour run time. Frankly, there aren’t enough scenes of them together. Near the end of the film, when Sullivan visits Borden in jail she asks, “What am I to you?” In the last 20 minutes, a narrative is spun regarding Borden’s recruitment of Sullivan to help with the murders and topple a sexually abusive patriarch, but with more character development, it indeed would have been clearer what Sullivan is to Borden. Is their relationship real and meaningful? Is it just lust? Was Borden merely using Sullivan to commit murder and  obtain independence? It’s never fully clear, but when Sevigny and Stewart are on screen together, committing what Andrew labels “an abomination,” their energy is palpable.

Watch the trailer for Lizzie:

Lizzie does succeed in humanizing Borden, especially when she confronts her abusive father or her womanizing uncle John Morse  (Denise O’Hare), who is determined to steal her inheritance. This Lizzie is bold and outspoken, willing to challenge the repressive gender norms of the time, including those that exist within her family. The film also touches upon mental illness and madness, namely how Lizzie is an outsider within her family because of spells (epilepsy, maybe?), but again, these scenes and this story arc aren’t given enough time to really develop. The concept of mental illness and women depicted as mad is a strong trope in both literature and film and by not exploring it in Lizzie, it very much feels like a missed opportunity.

While much of the film is a slow-moving drama, heavy on dialogue and scenes that primarily contain only two characters in a frame, the last 20 minutes are a blood-fueled trip that will please horror fans. By these final moments, after witnessing Andrew’s resentment towards Lizzie and his sexual abuse towards Sullivan, viewers won’t gripe when he finally gets his.

Lizzie is an intriguing take on a well-known story, which generally makes the viewer feel empathy towards Borden, whose lesbian tryst was an affront to her high-society family and social norms of the late 19th Century. The real highlight of the film is Stewart and Sevigny’s scenes together. If only there were more of them.

Overall score: 7/10

 

Sometimes Dead Is Better: A Review of Pet Semetary (2019)

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Over the years, Stephen King has retold the story of writing Pet Semetary and wanting to bury the manuscript because he felt like it was the bleakest novel he had written. Indeed, it is a depressing story that deals with the heaviness of grief and a family who suffers one loss after another, all within the span of a few short days. The new film, directed by Kevin Kolsh and Dennis Widmyer, is especially faithful to the novel in terms of tone, subject matter, and theme, despite two drastic changes to the story. The film’s major flaw, if it could be considered a flaw, is just how  grim and humorless it is, especially the final act.

The basic premise of the film is the same as King’s novel and Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaption. Doctor Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) relocates from Boston to Ludlow, Maine with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two children, Ellie (Jete Laurence) and Gage (Hugh and Lucas Lavoie), so he can take a job at a local university. Soon after relocating, the family befriends Jud (John Lithgow), who tells them about the “Pet Semetary” on their property and eventually introduces Louis to land just beyond the cemetery that has the power to reanimate the dead. At its core, the new film, like its predecessors, is a rumination on grief and loss.  One of the most powerful scenes occurs when Ellie first questions her parents about the process of death and asks why animals, including her precious tomcat Church, don’t live as long as humans. Louis tries to answer her in a rational, scientific manner, while Rachel offers a more faith-based opinion. This short scene illustrates Louis and Rachel’s different parenting styles and their contrasting views on death, while also adapting one of the most poignant scenes of the novel, the moment that a child starts to process what it means to die.

The film’s heaviness doesn’t relent, as Louis fails to save a student, Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed), who is hit by a car on campus and returns in Louis’ dreams to warn him that the barrier “shouldn’t be broken.” The Pascow of this version lacks the heart of Brad Greenquist’s performance in Lambert’s adaptation. Greenquist’s Pascow at least smiled every now and then, even with half of his skull busted open and bleeding. Ahmed’s ghastly version  matches the somber, gray tones of the film and the fog-heavy shots of the cemetery. Ahmed’s role is only to provide dire warnings to Louis, staring at him with red eyes, speaking to him as blood leaks from his skull.

Not long after Pascow’s introduction, Church is hit by a roaring semi and Jud helps Louis bury him in supernatural soil. Of course, he returns, but different. He hisses, growls, and stinks so bad that Ellie doesn’t want  him anywhere near her bedroom.

The trailer already spoiled one of the main story changes. It’s Ellie who is hit by a truck and dies, not Gage. Her death is especially effective because the first half of the film gives her plenty of screen time and develops the close-knit relationship that she has with her family. She becomes quite an evil presence in the last act, her face marked with black veins, her voice a growl. She delivers some of the curses and diabolical lines that a reanimated Gage says in the novel, but it’s more realistic coming from a nine-year-old compared to a two-year-old.

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Ellie (Jete Laurence) and Louis (Jason Clarke)

Kolsh and Widmyer also succeeded in showing the impact of grief on the characters. By the film’s last 30 minutes, Louis is so tormented by all of the death that he becomes red-eyed and ragged. Rachel, meanwhile, is haunted by memories of her sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levin), who died young from spinal meningitis. Zelda plays as large of a role in this film as she does in the novel, and she’s a terrifying presence, heard in the walls of the new house, a manifestation of Rachel’s trauma.

The second major change comes within the final minutes, and it’s a drastic departure from the novel and Lambert’s adaption. It punctuates the film with an utterly glum tone, while King’s final pages are more ambiguous. It’s likely that this ending will be polarizing for fans of the original film and King’s book, but the ending makes Kolsh and Widmyer’s film distinct and is consistent with the overall atmosphere, performances, and story of their remake.

Overall, Pet Semetary is a layered meditation on death and grief. With the huge resurgence of all things Stephen King, it’s likely that the film will do well at the box office, but its main flaw is that it doesn’t have many, if any, lighter moments, and it will undoubtedly be compared to Lambert’s 1989 film, which has amassed a cult following in the horror community over the years. Still, Kolsh and Widmyer managed to maintain the core of King’s novel, while making some changes  that are well-suited for the film that they wanted to make.

 

 

 

 

Retro Review: Pet Semetary (1989)

With the release of the new Pet Semetary about to drop, now is a good time to revisit director Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of one of Stephen King’s most well-known novels. Since King wrote the screenplay and oversaw production, the original Pet Semetary doesn’t deviate much from the novel, and after 30 years, much of it still holds up well, specifically the gore and special effects. The novel’s key themes of grief and loss are handled well by Lambert, especially a child’s questioning of death’s process and the cycle of life.

Pet Semetary follows the story of a young doctor, Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff), who moves with his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby) and their children, Gage (Mike Hughes) and Ellie (Blaze Berdahl), to a small, rural town in Maine. Their new home is only feet from a busy highway, where semis roar down the road at all hours of the day. Soon after the move, the family befriends a white-haired, wizened Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne), who shows Louis a “Pet Semetary” near their property. There are crocked wooden crosses in memorial to cats, dogs, and even a goldfish. When the Creed family’s cherished tomcat Church is killed, Louis takes Jud’s advice and buries the cat in an ancient mystical burial ground, imbued with reanimating powers. The cat doesn’t come back the same. It hisses, growls, and has glaring yellow eyes (one of the few special effects that hasn’t aged well). When Gage is killed by a semi, a grief-stricken Louis buries him in the pet semetary, and of course, he doesn’t come back the same. The scalpel-wielding, sneering Gage is one of the scariest parts of the film, especially his wicked laughter and dialogue, “Will you play with me, Daddy?” Furthermore, Louis’ realization that he’ll have to confront and kill his son and go through the grieving process all over again is a gut-wrenching scene.

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A re-animated Gage (Mike Hughes) out for blood

Lambert’s film has two key strengths: its handling of grief and its special effects. The most powerful scenes, years later, are how a family deals with heavy loss, first with Church and then with Gage. Early into the film, Ellie starts to question what, exactly, it means to die. She tells her parents that Church will eventually die before lashing out at the notion that “God” would ever take her pet from her, stating that Church isn’t God’s pet to take. In the introduction to the novel, King mentions that this dialogue was taken word for word after a conversation he had with one of his children about death. While some of the film’s dialogue and acting is  a bit hammy years later, Ellie’s questioning of death  is surprisingly powerful and realistic. Dealing with one loss after another, it’s not surprising that Louis takes Jud’s advice and buries the cat and then his son. He does what he feels is right to lessen his family’s pain.

The special effects work of Dave and Lance Anderson and John Blake enhance the film’s most terrifying scenes,  especially the moment when jogger turned spiritual guide Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist) is shown with half of his brain visible and leaking blood, or the few scenes when Rachel’s ghostly sister, Zelda (Andrew Hubatsek), returns from the dead to torment her. The make-up and effects of Pascow and Zelda are one of the film’s real highlights 30 years later. No CGI needed to make these characters ghoulish and memorable.

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Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist)

Overall, Lambert’s Pet Semetary is one off the better adaptations of King’s work, especially in how it deals with the novel’s key themes- death and grief. While some of the dialogue and acting is a bit dated (Gwynn’s take on Jud irked me, for instance), the practical effects have aged surprisingly well.

The recent King renaissance will continue this spring when the latest take on Pet Semetary is released, directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer. Unlike Lambert’s film, King didn’t write the screenplay or oversee production, so it will be interesting to see how the new film deviates from the novel. The trailer already spoiled one major change- it’s Ellie who dies and is brought back, not Gage. Why the trailer would spoil such a major change is anyone’s guess, but that alone may create a different take on King’s novel.

The trailer for the new Pet Semetary:

 

With that said, the new film has earned positive reviews from Blood-Disgusting and other horror sites after its screening at SxSw in March.  King also tweeted a few months ago, “This is a scary movie. Be warned.” So the new film has his seal of approval. It hits  theaters on April 5.

 

 

 

 

Review: Us (2019)

Anyone who was afraid that Jordan Peele would have a sophomore slump after the massive success of Get Out (2017) need not worry because Us  delivers as a bold, nuanced horror movie, one that strikes some comedic beats but is dark in its premise, social commentary, and kills. The core cast pulls off stellar performances, especially playing their eerie, grinning doppelgängers dubbed “the tethered.” With Us, Peele has invented  a new kind of monster, similar to the way that George A. Romero created the modern zombie in Night of the Living Dead. Like Romero’s zombies, the tethered are literally a reflection of us, or as Lupita Nyong’o’s doppelgänger Red says, the tethered are “Americans,” a reflection of what it would be like to fall a step or two down the social ladder, a lower-class that often exists beneath the surface, ignored or mocked.

Us primarily centers around Adelaide Wilson’s story (Nyong’o), who, as a little girl, wandered away from her parents at the Santa Cruz boardwalk and drifted into the fun house, where she encountered her doppelgänger for the first time. During the first 15 minutes, we don’t know exactly what Adelaide encountered in the fun house, but the story slowly unfolds as the movie progresses, until we have a clear understanding of why Adelaide is reluctant to spend another summer at the beach with her family. In the opening sequence and during the flashbacks interspersed throughout the movie, Madison Curry gives a strong performance as a young Adelaide, who, like the rest of the cast, has to also play the role of her double. As young Adelaide slow-walks and eventually enters the shadowy fun house, Peele makes it clear that this is going to be a straight forward horror movie. The film immediately acknowledges past genre movies. In the opening scene, young Adelaide is seated before a TV, watching a Hands for America ad, which has major significance to both the social commentary and the story of the tethered. The TV is bookended by VHS tapes of A Nightmare on Elm Street and C.H.U.D., which makes more sense once the story of the tethered is revealed. Some of the boardwalk scenes are a nice nod to The Lost Boys.

Once the first flashback concludes, the film shifts to the present, and Peele takes his time building up the family of four, making us generally care about them, from the sibling dynamics of Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), to the very likeable and funny family patriarch, Gabe (Winston Duke), to the rattled and wide-eyed matriarch, Adelaide. This is a family that we root for, and when their doppelgängers show up for the first time, lurking and holding hands just feet from the front door, we fear for the family’s safety and hope that they’ll make it out alive. The home invasion scene is one of the best since Funny Games and The Strangers, two films that Peele had Nyong’o watch to prepare for the role.

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The Tethered

Initially, we don’t know much about the tethered, and the only one who really has any dialogue is Red, who gives a monologue about “the shadow” and “the girl,” and how the girl grew up to have a perfect, middle-class life, complete with a smart husband and two adorable children. When asked what or who they are, Red simply responds, “We’re Americans.” Through the creation of the tethered, Peele offers his social commentary, one a bit broader than Get Out. The tethered are indeed us, the Americans that we too often ignore, hence why they live underground, a failed mind control experiment, until they decide rise to the surface and launch a bloody revolution, wielding golden scissors and lining the streets of the beach town with the bodies of the upper-middle class, both black and white. They’re also an indictment of the Hands Across America initiative, which was a call for all Americans to join hands on a single day in 1986 to raise money for homelessness. Yet, at the same time, the country was facing an AIDS crisis and President Reagan was busy blaming the poor for their situation. He  said in May of that year, “I don’t believe that there is anyone that is going hungry in America simply by reason of denial or lack of ability to feed them… it is by people not knowing where or how to get this help.”

More than Get Out, Us is a film very much steeped in class issues. Gabe buys a sputtering tug boat to impress the family’s white, snobby friends, Kitty  (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh Tyler (Tim Heidicker). At one point, Gabe says that Josh bought a new car just to piss him off. Furthermore, though the Wilsons are doing just fine, they’re not as wealthy as the Tylers. Kitty drones on about her latest plastic surgeries and how she could have made it as a big movie star, if not for having kids. Yet, the Tylers also have doubles, a sign that they too can slip a few social rungs and everything they have can disappear if life takes a sudden turn for the worse. Moss is especially effective in the role of her double, tracing her lips with lipstick, grinning into a mirror, and running the blade of her scissors along her cheek. She truly embodies the inversion of what Kitty considers to be beautiful.

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Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide

But the real highlight of Us is Nyong’o’s performance as both Red, the leader of the tethered revolution, and Adelaide, who keeps her family close and grows more primal as the film progresses, to the point that her white outfit and hands are eventually blood-soaked. As she showed in her break-out performance as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, Nyung’o is stellar at playing a demanding, emotional role. From her facial expressions to her guttural wails when she has to kill any of the tethered, Nyong’o’s performance is a must-see, especially the final show-down between Adelaide and Red, which is a beautiful, visceral scene.

Peele made it clear in a tweet days before the film’s release that Us is a horror film. Perhaps he doesn’t want to rehash the nonsensical “elevated horror” horror debate that films like Get Out sparked. With Us, he fully embraces his love for the genre. From the multiple references to other horror movies, to the nerve-rattling score by Michael Abels, who he also worked with for Get Out, Us is a film very much aware of the genre in which its operating and how to keep an audience on the edge of its seat. It’s an ambitious film, one that shows why Peele should continue working in the horror genre. He knows that horror has always been a great vehicle to address deeper issues, and with Us, he makes a bold indictment of 1980s America and current class divisions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: The Hole in the Ground (2019)

The last few years have seen a resurgence in horror films that deal with motherhood, including The Babadook (2014), Hereditary (2018), The Prodigy (2019), and most recently, A24 Studio’s Irish film The Hole in the Ground, which generally works with familiar tropes but includes stellar performances from its leads, masterful cinematography, and references to classic horror/sci-fi films, most notably Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s a slow-creep monster movie that centers around a woman trying to keep it together, while raising her son.

Directed by Lee Cronin, the film contains a simple but efficient plot: Sarah O’Neill (Seana Kerslake) tries to escape her broken past and moves with her son,  Chris (Jame Quinn Markey), from the city to the countryside. Not much is stated about Sarah’s past, other than she used to teach and her ex gave her a cut on her forehead. We never see her ex, and no flashbacks are presented to flesh out the backstory. We just know, from the outset, that Sarah is trying to move on with her life. Yet, her decision to move to a drastically different location triggers the start of the narrative and angers Chris, who tells his mom that she took him away from his father.

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Sarah played by Seana Kerslake

The film is a slow-burn, one heavy on atmosphere,  especially dim lighting, gray tones, and the engulfing forest surrounding their new home. One of the film’s first scares occurs when a creepy elderly neighbor played by Kati Outinen tells Sarah  that Chris isn’t her son. Not long after that, Chris  disappears one night and then reappears in the house after Sarah searched everywhere for him. Yet, his appearance and actions seem different.  His mother presses her ear to his bedroom door and hears him growling and making other animal-like noises. Eventually, she becomes convinced that he isn’t her son.

In the last act, Sarah approaches the edge of the forest and the hole in the ground, where she encounters strange, alien-like creatures. The premise that they can take over humans and use them as a host is a nice call-back to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, while the creatures themselves and the shots of Sarah crawling under ground in tight spaces resemble The Descent, which has Earth-based, cave-dwelling monsters that aren’t too dissimilar from what’s presented in The Hole in the Ground.

The image of a hole occurs throughout the film, through a coffee mug, water draining in a sink, and eventually the gaping hole in the forest. There are a lot of ways to interpret this image. Perhaps Sarah feels that she’s going to be consumed and swallowed by her shattered past, the abuse of her last relationship, and the struggles of raising a child on her own. Moving on from the past also altered and strained her relationship with her son. It caused them to see each other differently. The forest and hole loom larger as the film progresses and the relationship between the mother and son grows more fractious.

The Hole in the Ground  is a solid horror film that takes its time with its scares, using its all-consuming atmosphere to build dread and illustrate Sarah’s struggles and insecurities. No doubt horror fans will appreciate the nods to other staples in the genre. More importantly, the film explores the difficulties a single mom faces moving on from an abusive relationship and upending her son’s life, though necessary. The Hole in the Ground doesn’t do anything that different with the usual tropes, but it’s one of the year’s most solid horror entries so far, buoyed by strong performances and the cinematography.

The film is currently available to rent and stream on Amazon Prime. Lionsgate plans to release it on DVD in late April.

 

 

She Kills Is the Horror Podcast You Should Be Listening To

Shudder is quickly becoming a must-have streaming service for horror fans. For one, they keep acquiring exclusive rights to some of the most interesting and innovative films. Last year, they featured Mandy, Terrified, and Revenge, films that made several year-end, best-of lists. This year, they’re expanding their content in new ways to highlight the history of horror. This started in February with the release of Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror and Eli Roth’s 7-part series “A History of Horror,” which first aired on AMC last fall. Both of these series are well-worth the watch for the casual horror fan or horror scholars.

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The latest entry into their horror history content is the 10-episode podcast entitled “She Kills,” hosted by horror icon Adrienne Barbeau (The Fog, Escape from New York, Creepshow). “She Kills” analyzes the genre through a female lens and looks at several different tropes through the perspective of gender. Some topics covered include the Final Girl, witches, technology and horror, religious horror,  and rape/revenge. Each episode includes a rotating cast of guests, some of whom include Rotten Tomatoes senior editor and film critic Grae Drake, actress Jennifer Tilly (Bride of Chucky), actress Alex Essoe (Starry Eyes), Blumhouse.com editor-in-chief and professor Rebekah McKendry, actress Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, You’re Next), among others. Generally, the content is a mix of historical perspective and the political. For example, one episode compares the gas-lighting that Toni Collette’s character endures in Hereditary at the hands of men with the current state of politics in the U.S, but there are several lighter moments, too.  Jennifer Tilly chats about horror fandom and Bride of Chucky artwork that she enjoys seeing on Instagram.

Some other films analyzed include Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, Revenge, and The Shining Most importantly, what makes the podcast unique is that it’s totally female run, from the host, to the guests, to the content.  In one episode, the guests predict that in the age of Trump, the Kavanaugh hearings, and the constant threat to women’s rights, there is going to be more female-centered horror films. Kudos to Shudder for realizing that and for releasing an all-female horror podcast.

The podcast is available on iTunes, Shudder, Player FM, and other podcast-hosting sites.

 

May Poetry Retreat

With March underway, it’s time to start thinking about spring. I’m looking forward to doing a few poetry readings during the warmer months, and my creative juices always flow a little easier once winter is in the rear-view. If you’re looking for a writing retreat, I highly suggest the poetry retreat at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA on Saturday, May 11. The cost is only $25 and includes lunch and dinner, several workshops, readings, and reserved space to write and/or read. I’ll be one of the workshop leaders, most likely teaching a fun class on incorporating pop culture into writing. If interested, check out the RVSP form.

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